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U.S. Weighs Taiwan’s Warship Request with Chinese Protests

By Steven Mufson

Every year at this time, the United States decides which weapons it will sell to Taiwan. But this is no ordinary year; Taiwan has presented no ordinary shopping list; and the decision could hardly come at a more sensitive moment for the Clinton administration.

Topping Taiwan’s list of desired weapons are four Aegis destroyers costing about $1 billion apiece and bristling with missiles, guns, torpedoes and radars that can track 100 targets simultaneously. Awesome as this firepower may be in battle, members of the Clinton administration worry that its most explosive impact would be diplomatic.

U.S. relations with China already have been roiled by a newly elected leader in Taiwan, American missile defense plans and a U.S.-sponsored condemnation of China before the U.N. Human Rights Commission. As a result, the Clinton administration has been trying to calm tensions across the Taiwan Strait, to dampen talk of an arms race and to persuade Congress to accord China permanent normal trade relations.

The Chinese Communist government has warned of dire consequences if the United States sells Aegis destroyers to Taiwan, a self-governing island China claims as its own. Beijing fears the sale could embolden Taiwan’s new president, Chen Shui-bian, a longtime advocate of Taiwanese independence.

But the Aegis destroyer has important friends in Congress, beginning with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) whose home state is one of two where the warship is made. Lott and other top Republicans have warned the White House that refusing to sell destroyers to Taiwan might torpedo the trade bill on China.

“The administration is trying to find a straddle not to anger Beijing, please Congress and do what is right for Taiwan,” said Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center.

The administration is torn. The National Security Council opposes selling major new weapons to Taiwan, while the Pentagon is sympathetic to Taiwan’s requests.